I was born into a mentally ill family. My sister was the officially crazy one, but really we were all nuts.
The first memory I have of things nutty -- and I don't mean cute and screwball but, rather, things malevolent and indelible -- is looking at a photograph of my sister, age three, sitting grimly on the toilet.
"This is the moment I realized that she wasn't like us," Mother said, pointing at Lonnie's vacant eyes in the photograph. It was 1956, I was an awkward four-year-old and completely mystified by this snapshot of my sister. "You can see she wasn't all there, wasn't with the family," Mother added softly to herself.
Here, in a photo that refused to lie, was a little girl sitting on the toilet, wearing a frown that could launch nuclear missiles -- a look of possession and depth that was equal parts alien and recognizable. As if she were reconsidering being born. Surely Lonnie danced to the beat of a different drummer, only I had yet to hear the confounding music. Later, when I heard Stravinsky and, even more so, Karlheinz Stockhausen, I could glean the beat, I could even dance to it myself -- something I did at age nineteen, when it was permissible to dance the dance of dissolution. Until then, I made an art out of normalcy: composure, logic, balance. I didn't fool anybody, because my chewed-up nails looked as grim as my sister's face.
No longer "with the family" myself, I grew my own sort of frown. It came on in my late teens and replaced the hideously normal smile I'd cultivated my whole life up to that point. I wonder now whether I can still change my face, whether I can grow another look that telegraphs what I know, not just what I have endured. A face isn't something you can train, but I want to grow old without wincing at the future or brooding about the past. My past shouldn't determine my future. I should have a choice about my face and my fate. I should be able to say that I was born into an unfunny family, and laugh. But seriously, folks, I was born serious. And even though I thought I was the star of my life when I was four I soon learned that I was just another character in "The Lonnie Show." Lonnie was the sound and the action, the script and the special effects. There was no other theme or arc or subplot. Life with Lonnie was the only story. Until this story, which I hope to God is my own.
Julia, my mother, looks like Rita Hayworth, but she is prettier and more real. She is loyal to me and my sister. This morning as I go off to school, she prays that I won't be lonely, won't be nervous, that I will be "okay," because there isn't room for another problem in this family.
At the breakfast table there's already a problem. My sister is refusing to eat toast. It hurts her in some way we will never know, but I believe her. Surely Coca-Cola hurts as it slides down the throat and mushrooms are extremely disagreeable, even monstrous, when you stare them in the face.
Lonnie's screaming bloody murder at the toast lying buttered and helpless on the Melmac plate. It offends her senses. Mother coaxes Lonnie, "Just try the toast." (She wants to say the "damn toast" but she's not going to blame the toast or fly off the handle; it's way too soon.) All this noise arouses my father, who enters the room with his big stomach, the little hair he has left flapping in the air. "What in Sam Hill is going on here?" he booms.
"Lonnie is frightened of toast this morning. She refuses to eat it," my mother explains.
"EAT THE TOAST," my father bellows.
"NOOO!" Lonnie howls. "NO. NO. NO. NO."
"What do you mean 'no'? What's toast going to do to you?" He shakes the slice like a rattlesnake.
"I've tried everything, Burton. Just let her be." Exasperated, Mother draws her long, freckled hands through her coppery, shoulder-length locks; she likes peace the way I like peace.
"I'll get her to eat the damn toast," my father insists, palm outstretched in Lonnie's direction.
"Get your hands off me or I'll strangle you and leave you for dead."
My sister is direct. She's taken to talking like a thug to get her way. Too many Cagney films, Daddy says. But I don't get it. Where does this toughness really come from? I don't have an ounce of tomboy in me, and Lon's filled to the brim. Dressed in bright plaid Bermuda shorts and a crisp cotton blouse, she almost passes for a girl. But that telescope slung over her shoulder and that Buck knife clasped to her belt make people uneasy. They make me uneasy.
"Please, Lon," I plead. "You'll like the toast with peanut butter on it."
"No! It's got sharp edges!"
"You want to see sharp edges?" my father threatens stupidly, the side of his hand cutting the air.
Lonnie runs from the table, shrieking and pushing a stuffed animal with three legs and two heads in his face. She has tailored this creature to fit her idea of the universe: the world has two kinds of creatures, freaks and normal people, normal people being the scarier and far more dangerous species. They kill the freaks and make them do irrational things. Like eat toast.
Lonnie and her two-headed friend scramble down the hall, my father close behind with his hairy arms extended. Lonnie makes it to her room and begins to circle frantically, an animal panicking in her cage. Huddled in the hallway, Mother and I listen to some tragedy take place. Everything is a blur when we peek into Lonnie's room.
"Stop, Burton," my mother implores. "Let her be."
"Daddy!" I scream. "Plee-ease. Lonnie doesn't have to eat toast. Not everybody likes it." I am not a little peacemaker. I can't even be heard above the din of arms and legs and howling mouths.
I have stopped breathing. Now Mother and Daddy are fighting each other, quarreling over what to do next about Lonnie and the toast. While they confer in the hallway, Lonnie springs onto her mattress, fists clenched.
"I'll kill ya, I'll kill ya, I'll drag you in the gutter. I swear I'll get you an' drain your blood on the pavement. I mean it. I'll get ya when you're sleeping." Then she laughs maniacally, not like a mentally ill person but like a cartoon villain. She drools and spits to scare us, and it works. We know she is the consummate actress and loves to play everything to the hilt. But we also know this blond little girl with a Buster Brown haircut and a murderer's imagination is to be taken seriously.
Later, when I come home from elementary school, I see that the cold, butter-stiff toast is still on the table. I lift it up to my lips. I'm hungry, but will eating toast change that? I decide at the last second that the toast is ruined.
Lonnie lumbers into the kitchen like George Raft. "Oo-zy! Ooze!"
Oozy is her special name for me. She calls me Oozy because, when we play cats, she makes a deep ooze sound through her nose instead of the traditional purr. Somehow she associates this sweet, contented sound with me, her baby sister. But I don't feel very sweet today, just beat.
"What?" I snap.
"Ya gotta spend time with your good-for-nuthin' sister."
To stave off my guilt, we drink chocolate milk from the carton and eat Cocoa Puffs from the box. To stave off my loneliness, we play with dolls and stuffed animals, and wrestle like all siblings do. Except that Lonnie crunches me with so much love I wonder if I'll live through the afternoon.
Leon the Leopard
I am riding in the backseat of our cream-colored Chevrolet, en route to my sister's dark-haired, dark-hearted therapist. We make the trip twice a week, but I am not good about going. Lonnie's even worse. She has put out a contract on Mrs. Mancini because this therapist -- her fourth -- doesn't put up with any nonsense. My mother and I put up with all manner of nonsense; we are afraid of being less than good, and frankly it's messing up our lives.
The Heinz-Heinz Clinic is far away from Burbank. Studio City must be in another country, and there is no freeway yet. We go the long way through the flatlands, past NBC and Warner Bros. studios. I am only seven years old, so the long way is hard on my sense of time and history. Surely I have other things to do at this age, but my vote doesn't count.
Today, as we approach the Cahuenga Pass, the last stretch of undeveloped land connecting Burbank to Studio City, the hillside is a blur. I see five separate moving clouds of dust; they portend some sort of magic. Within seconds, wild horses emerge from the dust clouds; they run riotously every which way. Mother says somebody must be filming a cowboy movie, and my eyes widen. I consider the movies a reason for living! Ever since I was five, I have inserted myself into every movie I've seen and gratefully, humbly found succor there. I've not been on this planet long, but the idea of "elsewhere" appears to be the definition of a happy life. I've learned that "here" is a major disaster, a massacre of possibilities.
The unruly horses are now streaming toward the highway like they might not stop in time. I imagine being trampled to death, metal and horsehair mingling. Lonnie's yelping "Yahoo, ride 'em cowboy!" like a wild thing herself. Animals seem to soothe her, the wilder the better. Just before we will be certainly mowed down, the horses change direction, and our Chevrolet crosses over the pass undeterred.
By the time we get to the clinic, the day has become a pressure cooker. Lonnie's upset over the idea that we won't buy her a monkey or a Tokay gecko. She tears off in the direction of the corner drugstore to drool over the latest monster magazines and ogle the Nestle Crunch bars. Mother drags her back by the wrist, and for half a block Lonnie's screaming, "Meeshy. those horses are going to mash your face with their hooves! They're going to get you for giving birth to me, because I'm a stupid, stupid creature who has to attend this hell-house for maniacs instead of going to a real school -- like Oozy."
"You're not stupid," I protest, both hands raised to the heavens like some actress wearing a toga in a biblical movie.
"Oh yeah? Then why am I the only schlemiel who's gotta get his brain scanned and body wrapped in bandages like the Mummy? Why do I gotta go to the torture chamber to be probed by Dr. Mayhem?"
Lonnie's always trying to scare us big. I cover my ears and blink away tears; movies have not prepared me for her brand of savagery. Gazing up at my mother, hoping she'll play God here, I see a woman who, like me, can't quite believe her bad luck. She's stuttering, "I...I," and petting Lonnies white-gold locks. Fear and kindness make her lips twitch. "Such a pretty girl," she says to my sister. My mother is a saint.
"Grrr!" Lonnie exposes her fangs to prove she's the picture of ugliness. "Don't call me a girl. Call me Mad Dog!" She flings Captain Eyeball, the stuffed animal she's been toting everywhere for weeks, into Mother's eyes full throttle. Mother smiles a strange, close-lipped smile that's at odds with her sharp hand movements. Captain Eyeball is newly quarantined in her navy leather purse, while Lonnie brays like some animal I've never heard.
The Heinz-Heinz Clinic gives me the creeps. Sunlight floods the place, but its dark core manages to bleed through. In the waiting room I squirm on a pea-colored Naugahyde couch; my butt squeaks noticeably on the fabric. Those little flecks of dirt on the Naugahyde just might be boogers. Mother distractedly rubs my hand while she tells Lonnie to settle down, settle down. Shyness tugs at me like a strong tide, threatening to pull me under. I need a disguise, because I want it made abundantly clear that I'm not one of them -- one of the patients.
Lonnie has been a patient here for the last million years. She began her biweekly trips to the Heinz-Heinz -- Bloody Ketchup Clinic in Lonnie's lingo -- at the age of four. Although she's nine now, two years older than me, she's both my older and younger sister. Older in years and because she physically overpowers me -- she can have me at the mercy of her gyrating fists in two seconds -- and she's smarter too. Although she's been put in a class with mentally ill children her age, she can read and write at the twelfth-grade level. Her vocabulary is astonishing -- words like "reticulated," "Austral opithecus," and "inhumane" fall off her tongue. But she's my younger sister because she's worse than a baby when it comes to controlling her feelings. They spill out of her body and flood our house all day long. I mean, we're soaked. And younger because, as much as she hates to hear it, a babylike sweetness leaks through her tough-guy stance when she's not on guard. In public, I am sworn to protect my "little" sister; if anyone even looks at her funny, I will clobber them. Well, I'm a wimp so I do my clobbering in a silent, private way.
After five years of brain picking -- both Lon's brain and my parents' -- the Heinz-Heinz doctors can't decide what's wrong with Lonnie. The director says she's "schizophrenic," but Daddy says that's a bunch of baloney. "Lon does not straddle two worlds. She's definitely in one world, albeit her own irrational, insane little universe." The Freudians blame Lon's troubles on The Environment -- "the home environment," they told Mother during last week's session, whispering so as not to offend. The non-Freudians believe my sister's problems are chemical, that her chemistry got gummed up inside Mother's womb and that she was autistic for the first three years -- before she could express this unique chemistry. One lone doctor insists Lon is "borderline," which doesn't sound so bad to me. When he added, "With paranoid tendencies," he winked in a way that made me want to do some of that silent clobbering. But Lon likes the sound of "paranoid tendencies"; she calls it "piranha tentacles" and laughs a little too heartily to be convincing. All of these diagnoses enrage Daddy -- he has little faith in "headshrinkers" -- and they make Mother feel so guilty that she also regularly sees Mrs. Mancini at the Double H.
My own idea of what's ailing Lon doesn't count for much, but Mother says it's the most creative. Basically, I think Lon is onto something big. That she knows stuff we can't even imagine. Like what's out there beyond the Milky Way or
what goes on where the deep blue sea turns black. Even what's behind our eyes when we shut them tight and see stars. But all of this magical, wise stuff that she picks up like a TV antenna gets mixed up with the drab, normal junk of life and creates static in her head. That's why she makes sense half of the time and
the other half she's so bizarre that no one will give her the time of day. Poor Lon. She may be a genius like Albert Einstein and no one will ever know.
Lonnie is intently studying the person directly across from us, her eyes bugged out in obvious pleasure. Hand propped under her chin, she looks like a thoughtful scientist. Hiding unsuccessfully behind The Saturday Evening Post, the tall object of her scrutiny has her hair pulled back in a shaggy ponytail; her legs are clad in worn, soiled dungarees. Now the figure's staring back at Lon, equally amused. When the ponytailed lady abandons the magazine, Lonnie's confronted with a confounding beard.
"Are you a man or a woman?" Lonnie asks with utter sincerity, moving into range of the mystery figure.
Mother gasps and covers her mouth with both hands. "It's..." She can't spit it out. I do a double take. "It's Gary Cooper," she whispers to me, biting tangerine-shaded lips.
"Who?" I whisper back, trying to be polite.
"The actor, the actor," she sings softly.
Lonnie is now pulling on Gary Cooper's ponytail, examining him like he's an exciting new species. He appears to enjoy her sense of confusion. "I'm a movie actor who's getting ready to play a part," he graciously explains.
"But are you a man or a woman?" she insists.
"Well, I guess I'm a man." He chuckles. "I'm Gary Cooper."
"Oh," she responds neutrally, not offering any sign of recognition. "You sure look funny."
I am dying of embarrassment. What's a movie star doing in this place? Is he crazy too, or just waiting incognito for a loony friend or a wacko wife? I look away to give him all the privacy he needs, feeling badly that he's been found out. It's then my mother tenderly explains that I too will be seeing a therapist today, because...well...she can't explain.
I'm suddenly as small as a hand grenade and very, very furious. Mother gets her voice back. "Honey, the clinic feels it's in your best interests to be tested, in case you need some help coping with your sister. We want to provide that for you."
"Yeah, I'm so bad, Oozy, you might need shock treatments just to live with me. Or get your blood sucked out and replaced with acid." Lonnie pulls the worst possible face. All the light goes out of her milky skin, and she pretends she's a monster coming to eat me, or worse, to spend time with me.
I shoo her away in a wimpy fashion. But Lonnie is invincible; she doesn't stop for anyone. "Not now!" I explode.
Whimpering like a dog, Lon retreats to the toy chest in the corner of the waiting room and fishes out a yellow plastic gun. Hurt by things I can't express, I lick my lips too many times and scowl at the wallpaper's repeating patterns. Staring at paisley would make anyone bonkers. "Why do they need to test me?" I ask Mother, as if she's just slapped me hard. "Aren't I okay?"ar
"Yes, dear, you are just fine -- perfect! But they're testing the whole family to make sure that living with" -- she nods in the direction of Lonnie -- "hasn't upset us too much. They tell me it will be fun -- games, stories, dolls."
"Dolls?" I light up.
A pretty woman appears from nowhere and introduces herself. "Lorna, I'm Miss Deary." She extends a hand with pointed, red-lacquered nails -- an actress' hand. I shake it gingerly, wondering why my hands already look older than hers.
"Honey, you are just going to have the greatest time! Let's go into the playroom and I'll show you all the wonderful things we have in there. Do you like Tiny Tears dolls?"
Maybe. I dunno. Are dolls that cry real tears supposed to cheer you up? Reluctantly, I follow Miss Deary into what I imagine will be a hall of fun-house mirrors that make you appear stretched out and stretched in, fat and screamy looking. In all the times I've been forced to accompany Mother and Lon, I've never passed through these doors, where all the crazies go. My stomach is in an uproar, but I do what the adults say.
Miss Deary has full, puckered lips like Ann Blyth, the mermaid in a movie I saw when I stayed up too late one night and Daddy forgot I was in the room. She's so gorgeous that I want to kiss her and take her home like Mr. Peabody, the fisherman in the movie, did. Sporting a cute pageboy swept back by a stretchy chartreuse headband, she escorts me into a small room with a grimy linoleum floor. On the floor is a rust-colored throw rug littered with junk: jacks and red rubber balls, a catcher's mitt, a dollhouse, a scratched-up race car, an icky, unfamiliar doll -- probably an off-brand -- and a mangled, pop-up storybook. Also three tissue boxes in case the "fun" gets out of hand. I sit down Indian-style and await instructions.
"Go on," Miss Deary waves her arms theatrically "Play!"
Just like that? Wouldn't that be a little odd? I interlace my fingers and press my hands together until they ache, staring at the pearly-pink nail polish curling off my left thumb.
"Honey, feel free to play with anything you see. I'm going to visit another child for a second, but I will be right back." She winks a little too broadly.
I gaze up at Miss Deary's mermaid face and wonder how she can stand it, working with peculiar people, when she's so beautiful. It hurts me that she's already going away when we've just begun. Maybe I'm here to be ignored, just like at home. But I want to show her how darn flexible I can be, so I nod okay and pretend that the threadbare storybook is one of the ten wonders of the world.
"You're sure you're comfortable, honey?"
"Uh-huh," I peep and decide not to make my move until she's all the way down the hall. I notice that the weirdo doll actually has a very sweet face that's comforting. I take her up in my arms to check out her hair. It's thinning and stinky; the doll has been pawed to death by children with problems, which makes me kind of sick. But I can't abandon her; she needs me. So I raise her face up to meet mine and let our cheeks rub each other, like sisters do. I feel the warmth of the doll's soft plastic and press her more forcefully into my face. Then, feeling superselfconscious, I lay the wrecked doll in my lap. After a minute, I pick her up again and peek under her dress. The doll doesn't have any panties on, so I quickly pat down her frock to make it look fresh, even springy. To help her out in this place I decide to give her a name: Sarah? Becky Sue? Suzy Sadhead? On the rug, a tiny comb with missing teeth catches my eye, and I use it to comb out the newly dubbed Mindy's messy hair. When I've made her into someone respectable, I imagine her interacting with my other dolls. Without warning, Miss Deary breezes in with an enormous, severe smile.
"Hi, sweetheart! How are we doing?"
"Okay," I confess. I place the doll on the floor face down.
Miss Deary sits down next to me and smooths out the tight tweed skirt that demurely covers her mermaid "legs." "We're going to tell each other stories today. Do you like stories?" She doesn't wait for my answer but forges ahead with instructions. I will begin a story and you will jump in and finish it -- got the picture?" I nod my head.
"So Lorna-lee, here-we-goooo! A princess is very sad because she's never had a true friend. Her dog, Pesky, is her only pal. One day, while crying her eyes out, she comes upon a thick oak tree with a very old woman sitting at the bottom of it." Miss Deary leans into me and whispers, "Your turn, missy."
"Um," I say, "the princess asks the old lady for a lunch sack 'cause she's really really hungry. The old lady says no. No, no, no! The princess faints from hunger. But she's so light, she rises into the air and...um, flies above the head of the old woman. She buzzes around the old woman's head like a buzzard or a lovely bluebird or a bee with a mean old stinger or --"
"Yes?" Miss Deary encourages.
I realize that this is a setup. If I am too clever or violent or inventive, she will have my head on a platter. If my story is too plain, I won't have any fun at all. If my story is halfway neat and halfway normal, I will pass this test but have a dumb time doing it. This is the first time in my short life that I see how thin the line is, the one between the okay people and the not-okay ones.
"I don't feel too good," I tell Miss Deary.
"But your story was very powerful," she lets me know, running her ruby-red fingernails through her perfect pageboy fluff.
"It's a story about an angry girl, isn't it?" I chew on my hair while she reads the inscription on her pencil and appears to find it compelling.
"Oh, I don't know. Do you think so?" I don't answer, so she begins again. "The next story is about a little boy in a wheelchair. His mother loves him but she is very tired of pushing her boy around. She's just pooped! What happens next?"
"Uh...she decides to wrap red velvet ribbons around the wheelchair. She gives the ends of the ribbons to a flock of birds [uh-oh, I gulp, birds again!] who lift the chair off the ground, higher and higher into the sky. The boy floats above the clouds and makes friends with everybody else who's flying that day."
"And the mother?" Miss Deary interjects.
"The Mother, who is very sweet and loving, gets a day off from pushing around her son. She goes dancing with the father of --"
"Of?" Miss Deary's eyes widen, like I'm onto something important.
"...of her son's best friend. He makes dancing shoes for a living. The mother and the man slip on sequined dancing shoes and waltz around on the ground at a grand French park while their boys are floating above them in the sky, happy at last. The mother and the man kiss a whole lot and decide to start a school for handicapped children. But they don't have to work there. They don't have to do anything but dance."
"Really?" Miss Deary looks pleased at this one. She takes a long breath through her upturned nose. "Last story. A little girl hates her life on the farm. She decides to run away and become a..."
"... a dashing skywriter, writing love poems in the sky with her handsome boyfriend pilot. They write in loop-de-loops and, before long, everyone sees their special message."
"I dunno," I shrug.
"Oh, surely you can think of something?"
Eyes closed, I can see only a swarm of blinking blue and yellow dots; then the words form in my head. "Their message is: Leave us alone forever! We're happy and in love and will never come down!"
Miss Deary scribbles hastily on her notepad, a sign that something I said was peculiar. "You're quite the storyteller," she says in a bright, warm voice. "Now tell me about Lonnie. Is it hard for you to live with her?"
"Yeah," I reluctantly admit, "but she can't help it." I study the loops in the throw rug and imagine hiding within their deep shadows.
"Tell me what it's like to live with her."
"Oh, you know." I twist the Mindy doll's hair around my forefinger.
"No, honey, I really don't."
"Oh, she screams all the time because everything is wrong in her world. Certain colors and foods and noises make her nuts. She hates to hear babies cry. She hates me sometimes because she thinks I'm better off than her. But it's not true. I'm just luckier." I suck on my lower lip; my eyes begin to fill with water.
"Does she make you nervous?"
I shake my head vigorously up and down, tears jumping off my cheeks, as if I've just turned Lonnie in to the police.
"Would you mind drawing a picture of how Lonnie makes you feel?"
Miss Deary hands me a box of Crayolas and a clean sheet of manila paper, then runs out of the room without explanation. I take up the crayon labeled "Flesh" and draw a huge head surrounded by whacked-out, straw-colored hair. I fill in the head with a face that's both ghastly and pretty: one eye true blue, the other dipping down and purple; a mouth that's howling and laughing and hopeful, and a brain that's planning a major escape. Then I add a background of violet bows and bluebirds. When I finish, it's clear I've drawn something vaguely familiar: it's the Mindy doll imprisoned in this clinic.
Miss Deary rushes in and abruptly snaps up the portrait. "Thank you, Lorna. Well, time's up! Your mother is waiting for you." I know I look crushed, because she adds, "This picture is just wonderful -- will you sign it for me?" I print "Lorna Person" over the face I've drawn and imagine Miss Deary tossing it into the wastebasket as soon as I leave the room. Holding hands, we walk down the hall in silence; I can feel the weight of her sorrow. In the waiting room, she tells Mother that I am a good sport, that I'm a real artist and a gifted storyteller. Mother is pleased.
Miss Deary hugs me good-bye; her skin smells like stale flowers and baby powder. But I don't get to kiss her mermaid lips. "Oh goodness, wait a second!" she shakes a finger at my nose. Hobbled by her tight skirt, she scurries over to the receptionist, who hands her a crinkled brown shopping bag. Her arm disappears all the way into it, and I prepare myself for candy. Instead, out of the mysterious bag, Miss Deary produces some kind of stuffed tiger or lion or leopard. "The Heinz-Heinz Clinic would like you to accept this gift as thanks for spending time with us."
With us? She presents the animal like a peace offering. I decide that it's a leopard; it's got the kind of fur that, when new, is deeply thrilling. Plush with dark brown spots, he'll be something good to smush into my face on a bad night.
As she delivers the leopard into my tiny palms, Miss Deary commends me for my courage: "You are a brave little girl." But I catch her shaking her head as if she knows my future isn't going to be so sunny. How could she know this? Did something in my test tip her off?
I take the gift like I'm supposed to, but the animal makes me shy. I hadn't expected a souvenir, and I'm not that fond of stuffed animals. Couldn't she see I'm the doll type? Nonetheless, I've earned something big today. I grab the leopard, put it back in the sack, and hug the sack to my chest on the long drive home.
I make a life for the leopard at 114 Bethany Road. I name him Leon -- Leon the Leopard -- because it sounds noble. Leon sleeps near my face every night for months, a soft reminder of having my sanity questioned. Gratefully, he's a prince of a stuffed animal. For one thing, his loyalty is without peer. It doesn't matter if I cry too hard or pick my nose in front of him or plunge my lips far into his fur; he is steadfast. I'm sure he will keep my secrets until I can no longer remember what he might or might not know. Even if his fur becomes ragged and yellow, I will love him unconditionally. But frankly, I don't know how to create a personality for a jungle cat, not like the detailed lives I invent for my fashion-plate dolls.
Tonight, after a hundred nights of Leon sleeping on my pillow, I realize that the question he poses is growing old and irritating. Though he's a toy that exudes calm, he is also a nagging reminder of what I fear most: that I am deeply, truly crazy and have gotten away by the hairs of my chinny-chin-chin.
Afraid to answer Leon's question, I hide him away in a dusty shoe box. "Really, Lorna," I scold myself, "you're getting way too mature for stuffed animals!" I place the shoe box high up on a shelf in my closet, and climb into bed without my leopard for the first time in months.
But it's no use; I hear a rumbling in the shoe box where Leon fitfully sleeps. Sorry, I say to the ceiling. Sorry, I tell God. Confused, I step out of my covers and tiptoe over to the closet. I stretch my arms as far as they will go to reach Leon's box. Maybe I should allow Leon back on my pillow. Maybe I should be a better friend. The guilt is killing me, but the guilt is familiar, I leap back into bed and sit on my hands. Leon will be liberated only when it's safe -- maybe when I'm ten years old -- and then only for a few minutes at a time.
Mrs. Fisher must be fearless. She arrives at our house every Saturday night to bear witness to our lives. She acts regular in a house that looks and sounds and probably smells weird. A classic little old lady who could have been sent from Central Casting, she comes with the requisite blue-gray bun and wrinkles. She even twinkles! Though no cooking is required of her, she ties a gingham apron around her tiny waist the second she arrives. But no matter; she gives me faith in the idea of calm or perhaps has given me the very idea. Though spindly and slow, Mrs. Fisher's a good egg, and so soft to the fingers. Her cheeks crumble under my touch. When she gets steamed, she says "Oh fudge!" (it took me years to realize that "fudge" and "fuck" were interchangeable), and flaps her arms up and down in a regrettable way. I feel ashamed and scared when this happens; she's so fragile she might topple over, and we don't need another catastrophe on our hands.
Already, Lonnie has exhausted a string of capable sitters, young women who couldn't bear the noise or the responsibility, and veterans whose spirits were crushed by too many evenings of insane-asylum antics, hellish screams, and absurd, bone-chilling death threats: "Lemme outta this godforsaken joint or I'll tie you up and leave you for the maggots!" "Lemme have another Hostess Twinkie or I'll make this your last supper!" Lonnie's accustomed to getting her way, and our sitters aren't willing to test this.
But Mrs. Fisher never lets on that this assignment at 114 Bethany Road has been the worst in her long, stellar career. She's been extraordinarily patient and kind with us, sloughing off insults and attacks like a priest (or someone deaf). She calls us "darling" or "dear," and Lonnie calls her "Fish Face" or "Fish Eyes." Out of respect (and for balance), I call her "Mrs. Fisher." I'm not sure how old people handle nicknames. If I was bolder, I'd call her "Grand Duchess" -- something elevated. If I was really bold, I wouldn't stay in this family.
Every Saturday night my parents bail out of here in Daddy's black Ford Galaxie. They go to the latest movie and eat the latest kind of food at a neighborhood restaurant that's offering a two-for-one deal. I'm not jealous, though; I know they deserve a break from who we are together.
While Mother and Daddy are away, I try to use the time well. I ask Mrs. Fisher to show her commitment to me in a very personal way. "Can you cut out some clothes for my paper dolls?" I usually mumble, unsure of my demands. Mrs. Fisher never complains about these assignments; she seems almost grateful. Last week, she liberated Peggy Lee's entire wedding trousseau, cutting neatly around the flaps like she really cared.
Tonight, I've given Mrs. Fisher the daunting task of cutting out every outfit in my new Lennon Sisters paper doll book. Tomorrow morning, like magic, each sister -- Diane, Kathy, Peggy, and Janet (my pet) -- will have something divine to wear. On the coffee table, I've lined up each doll alongside her ensembles in hopes that Mrs. Fisher will apply herself, truly outdo herself, and provide four times the usual number of paper frocks, sequined gowns, picnic togs, modest bathing suits, and filmy boudoir attire. As Mrs. Fisher artfully attacks Janet's alpine outfit, I sit next to her on the couch for moral support, breathing in her Evening in Paris perfume. We're poised to watch the Miss Universe Pageant, and I can't allow anything to divert me from this goal. It's a two-hour special that should keep me hooked and calm.
This year I am pulling for Miss Argentina. Because she's a brunette, she's far more vulnerable than the blond contestants; her dark, velvety kindness leaks through the TV screen. During the swimsuit competition, she radiates compassion; in the talent competition, she offers a moving soliloquy as Anne Frank -- although everyone must see she's a bit old for the part. But during the critical question-and-answer sequence, she positively soars.
The emcee has asked the five finalists the ultimate question: "If you are crowned Miss Universe, what will be the most important service you can offer the world?"
Miss Argentina licks her glossy lips, lowers her head like she's praying, then smiles defiantly at the judges. "I plan to use my title as a springboard for working with poor and disadvantaged children. I want to touch and change as many lives as I can."
I fiercely applaud Miss Argentina, while Mrs. Fisher snorts, "They all say the same thing! Can you believe this nonsense?" Mrs. Fisher is rooting for Miss Norway (a blonde!) and can't identify with the poor and disadvantaged -- her family life on a farm in Iowa was the picture of normalcy. But I am steadfast in my love for Miss Argentina; I want to touch lives too.
During a Breck shampoo commercial, I begin planning my own acceptance speech. I do this every year to see if I'm worthy. In my head I conjure up a vertiginous moment of applause, sweeping orchestral music, and a veil of real tears. My knees wobble as the emcee (James Darren? Tab Hunter?) announces my name, but I accept my tiara with a grace that has risen from unknown depths:
As the proud candidate hailing from the great state of California, and the even greater nation of America, I want to thank all the world's people for believing in me -- a big-nosed, flat-footed girl from Burbank, California. Believing in me enough to see past my oodles of flaws and stupid sensitivity. And for recognizing my potential for greatness. Yes, even at my tender age, I do a few things well: I doodle pictures of girls' faces. I can draw a variety of hairdos. I write stories about girls who fend for themselves, and I'm destined to become a fabulous actress, given half the chance. You people are amazing (and a little bit suspect) for seeing something growing inside of me. Thank you. You are too much. I hope I won't let you down. If I haven't already.
My schmaltzy reverie is demolished by the presence of Lonnie; she's blocking the TV set, waving a headless Lennon Sister (please God, not Janet!) as the supreme taunt. She can't stand that Mrs. Fisher's attention has been redirected to me, a person who she believes has the world at her feet.
"Oozy, turn off that frilly girl show. You always get to do what you wanna do. You can go to a real school and you can drive and vote --"
"I'm only nine!" I insist.
"And you can go out on the town with your ugly, normal friends --"
"I don't have any friends!"
"That's because they're all afraid to come over here and meet me, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Your friends are afraid they'll catch my disease."
"And what disease is that?" I ask sarcastically. "Scales, gills, and third eyes?"
"Heh-heh-heh," Lonnie laughs, always pleased when I support her ghoulish image of herself. "Yeah, scaly-itus! It's like scoliosis, but worse!"
Now I see that Lonnie hasn't really snipped off the head of my paper doll; she's just bent it down so that the doll appears headless. "Give me back my paper doll!"
Mrs. Fisher nods her head in approval; I think she's been cowering behind me the whole time. After a fidgety silence, she intervenes. "Lonnie. The doll is Lorna's. You know that, darling."
I make a face at the "darling." Lonnie's still a young girl like me, but with her wrinkled brow and precocious biceps, she appears to be carrying the weight of Khrushchev's Russia. She's sporting a freshly buzzed-off haircut that's absolutely freaky. Last week, in a secret act with Daddy's electric razor, she shaved her straight hairline into a widow's peak, hoping to join the club of vampires that live in her head. Her pretty white-blond hair is now sticking straight up like a Fuller Brush man's scrub brush. My sister, who only a month ago could pass for Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, is now so distorted that I have to look away: I have seen this hair before in a documentary on concentration camps that aired on The 20th Century. I couldn't look at those women either.
"Lonnie dear, please give Lorna her doll and I'll give you some buttermilk and a Fig Newton in the kitchen."
Lonnie scowls at me like a Dead End Kid, then flings my once-fresh paper doll on the rug as if it's smelly garbage. To scare us out of our skins this evening, she's adorned herself with a shark's tooth necklace, a ghastly shrunken head on a cord that she bought at Pacific Ocean Park, a cheap plastic skeleton ring, and her ubiquitous flesh-colored earplugs. Noises, especially the giggles and girl talk of the Miss Universe Pageant, annoy her no end. Unfair, because the crude sounds of wrestling and boxing matches are like music to her ears. At the cries of babies, she cringes, but during baseball games she revels at the outcries of opinionated old men. I am onto her and she knows it. Still, I protect Lon from the "bad" sounds as much as I can -- otherwise, she'll make bad sounds of her own.
"Oozy can't have all the fun, Mrs. Fisher. Ya gotta save some leftovers for me!"
"In due time, in due time..." Our baby-sitter pats her tightly wound bun and takes a shaky, shallow breath.
"Listen up, Fish Face! I wanna watch Thriller, not this girly crap with voodoo dolls walking all over the stage showing their tushes!" Lonnie lunges at Mrs. Fisher as if she's going to bite off her powdered nose.
Mrs. Fisher flutters her eyelashes and makes little wiggly smiles. "I promised Lorna she could watch her show. It's only on once a year and Killer comes on every week. Let's give Lorna a chance, dear."
"Okay, I'll give Lorna the chance of a lifetime: I'll give her her last chance to live by letting me see my show. Or else something really terrible will happen to her when she's sleeping.
Standing within an inch of Mrs. Fisher's dainty waist, Lonnie flexes her cute, bunched-up muscles. In a surprise attack, she bolts onto our plastic-encased davenport and makes a show of bouncing on its tired cushions. Taller than Mrs. Fisher now, Lonnie appears to take up more room in our house than I thought possible. Fists protecting her face, she tightens her body into a defensive position and holds it so long that she begins to quiver.
Still, I'm numb to her threats tonight: Miss Argentina just got crowned third runner-up, and I'm clapping like I'm right there in Miami Beach, out of my head with excitement. "Yay! Yay! Yay!"
Lonnie and Mrs. Fisher have taken their standoff into the front hall, which has been freshly painted by Daddy in some newfangled process called Zolotoning. Mrs. Fisher's voice is unusually loud, and I can't hear who the first runner-up is. "Shut up, Lonnie!" I snarl. (I could never ask Mrs. Fisher to pipe down.)
"Oh yeah? You prissy pink princess!" Lonnie shakes her fist at me like a mobster. "I'll clam up for good and then you won't have me to ruin your evening ever again, 'cuz I'll be dead and six feet under!"
Lonnie pantomimes her tragic death, stake-through-the-heart style, and I begin to fill with regret, already picturing myself weeping at her grave. Before I can tell her that I love her and that she shouldn't even think of dying, Lonnie has bounded out the front door, into the thrill of the Burbank night. I hear screams up the street and wonder if that's my big sister or if the whole world is having a problem tonight.
Mrs. Fisher grabs her purse and my left arm, and we fly out the front door, racing up the hill and past the cozy-looking tract houses. I wish I had a disguise for these occasions, a way to be related to my sister that didn't show. I feel Mrs. Fisher's hand trembling in mine and realize that she doesn't have a clue as to where Lonnie has gone. I am frantic, studying the driveways of all the neighbors, who, I suspect, can't stand us because we're Jewish or because we have a crazy person in our family, or maybe both. The shadows aren't friendly; I hear stupid little dogs whining and the brassy sounds of TV sets.
Oh fudge, I've just missed the announcement of the new Miss Universe.
I see the flickering image of Ginny Merkle, a girl in my class who has always seemed standoffish, as if I emit some kind of rotten fumes. She's moving back and forth in front of her kitchen window, laughing and drinking soda with another girl. Their giggles pierce me; I'm convinced they're laughing at me, scampering up the street with an old lady in tow.
Mrs. Fisher wraps her yellow cardigan around her thin, white frame and warbles into the hot summer wind. "Lonnie, Lonnie, dear! Sweetheart, come back! You can watch your little show. Honey, please come back!"
My own squeaky voice has got fear written all over it. "Lon? Lonnie? Lon-neeee! Please come home..." I can't see anything in front of me except hulking cars and the swaying skeletons of trees. I turn around to make sure that Mrs. Fisher is keeping pace with me and discover she's a half step behind. We look into each other's eyes and see the same thing: cloudy irises and tears.
"I'm terrified," she confides. "Whatever am I going to tell your mother? That I lost her daughter? Good God! Sweet Jesus!"
I have never heard Mrs. Fisher swear and wonder if I am going to lose her to the night too. Then it will all be up to me, sweet Jesus, Moses, or whoever. I must find some courage, I must find my sister. "Let's go up higher," I tell her. "Lonnie's gone into the hills."
"How do you know?" Mrs. Fisher tugs at my arm. "It's so dark, she can't see her own feet."
A shiver passes up my thighs, even though it's too hot for goose bumps. And then I detect something a few yards in front of me that's shaped like a human being: it's a father coming home late to his happy family, kissing his wife hello on the doorstep, and expecting something tasty for dinner. Mrs. Fisher and I walk and then run as quickly as we can up another whole block. The incline is getting steeper, and we are huffing and puffing like two old ladies.
Straight ahead, an animal sound startles us. "Listen to that," I instruct Mrs. Fisher, who looks as worried as a guy strapped in an electric chair.
"It's a coyote," she whispers.
"No," I shake my head. "It's her!"
I get a sense of what's going on now. Lonnie thinks like an animal. Like a frightened wolf or fox or bobcat, she plans to scramble into the Burbank foothills as far as she can go. She's always got to make a whopping big point: I am not human, guys, remember?
"Look," I point dead ahead. My eyes follow a tall moving shadow as it washes over a backyard retaining wall and merges with the shiny rocks behind it. Mrs. Fisher cautions me not to trespass. This is not a tract house like the ones on our block; this house belongs to somebody with money, and maybe they will come out and shoot us to protect their fancy trappings. Now the shadow is climbing the rugged face of the hill.
"Oozy's gonna get bitten, Oozy's gonna get bit."
Thank God, it's Lonnie. "Lo-onn!" I yell. "Get down here! Now!"
"No!" she bellows. "You wanted me dead and now I'm going away for good."
"Please?" I beg.
"Forget it, murderer. Oozy is a killer, Oozy is a killer," she chants.
Mrs. Fisher is beside herself and can't speak; she's looking at the ground like this is not happening. Unexpectedly, I fill with a strange kind of love: maybe Lonnie should live in the hills. She's suited for them. The salamanders and snakes and insects respect her. Maybe we've been trying to cage a wild thing for too many years.
The shadow climbs higher, until I can see nothing but bare rock and the occasional weed. Then, small stones rain down on us, and I hear the screech of a baboon. Mrs. Fisher is biting her lower lip so hard, I think I see blood. She motions stiffly. "C'mon, let's call the police."
"No," I caution, oddly in control. "They can't do anything, they'd only make it worse. Lonnie's not afraid of cops, and she'd happily go out with a big bang."
"What do you mean, 'Go out'? 'Big bang'?" she repeats, hands on her chest, trying to still her heart.
"You know -- make a scene, do something dramatic." I tend to forget that not every family knows drama like our lucky clan.
"Dramatic?" Mrs. Fisher's voice cracks. "More than this?"
"Yeah, a big Academy Award type of scene. She might act like a rabid dog or a berserk wolfman. The police could shoot her if she does her wolfman act."
"W-wolf?" Mrs. Fisher stutters.
Now I've succeeded in frightening both of us. Meanwhile, Lonnie has stopped pitching rocks. I can't see a trace of my sister; the silence almost hurts. "Lonnie?" I query, "I'm gonna count to ten and then call the police. I swear it."
More silence. Then the truth. "Lonnie, this is really upsetting me."
"Good!" she blurts out from some unknown place at least fifteen feet away.
It's then I decide I can't take any more of this. I am a wreck. I am a nervous wreck, just like my parents, and there's little hope of changing this. I will live my life as a wreck and forever be searching the hills for my sister in the middle of the night. I will always bite my nails and feel ashamed of my hands. I will always eat my dinner too quickly and hardly taste it. Till the end of my days I will hide in my room and wonder if I'm really okay or just faking it.
In the midst of my terror, Mrs. Fisher kisses my ear. She shouts in the direction of a large bush halfway up the hillside that's bobbing suspiciously, "Well, good-bye dear, we really are too tired to stay out all night." We make sounds as if we're leaving.
"Yellow-bellied cowards!" Lonnie roars.
So she wants to be saved after all. I smile and try the only approach that's left: shtick. "Lonnie, get your big tookis down here, you meshuganah Creature from the Black Lagoon."
"Heh-heh." Her classic cartoon laugh.
"I'll let you watch your schlemiel monster show and let you eat as many chocolate-covered matzoh balls as you want. Your wormy little sister will crawl under a rock while you have a monster bash and barbecue my paper dolls on the hibachi."
Mrs. Fisher wrinkles her nose like I'm speaking Spanish. She doesn't realize how much I've flattered Lonnie by entering her world. She doesn't know Lon's got a yen for Yiddish.
As my sister makes her way down the hill, she shakes her head of wigged-out hair and makes fake mountain lion sounds. I answer with a poorer version of growls and roars. By the time I spot Lonnie's wild-eyed face in the moonlight, both of us are howling at the moon in unison. I give her a bear hug, but she shakes me off violently. Without warning, the back-porch lights of the fancy house flick on, and we are forced to hush up. Like common criminals, we hustle out of the backyard and silently make our way down Bethany Road. Holding hands, Mrs. Fisher and I practically weep with relief, while Lonnie grins like the Cheshire Cat. Her cheeks are smudged with dirt like an orphan in the movies, and she's got twigs and leaves in her hair and on her Peter Pan collar.
As we approach the driveway to our house, Mrs. Fisher mumbles a brief, unrecognizable prayer. I am praying too -- that no one has seen or heard us. Lonnie jabs me in the ribs, cracking herself up with the stalest jokes: "Home sour home, Oozy. You know that home is where the fart is." We've left the front door wide open, and the screen door's flapping back and forth in the eerie Santa Ana wind.
Lonnie saunters in like she owns the place and turns on the television. She tunes in Thriller and plops down on the couch, a little too close to my Lennon Sisters. In minutes, she's hissing at the set, foamy drool spilling out both sides of her month. Disgusted, she turns off the TV and stalks into the kitchen. Mrs. Fisher and I run after her like prison guards.
"What's happening now?" I shout in Lonnie's ear. Nothing more can happen. I won't allow it.
"I've seen that episode," Lon whines. "It's slow and silly and cheap, cheap, cheap! It doesn't feature the type of sophisticated monster I like." Lonnie throws open the refrigerator door and snatches a carton of buttermilk from the shelf. She takes a swig of milk and wipes her chin. "Gotta go drinkin'," she announces, and plods down the hall to her room, gripping the milk carton like a beer can.
With Lonnie our captive, Mrs. Fisher locks every door and window she can think of, then sits down on the sofa to catch her breath. She nervously flips through an old Saturday Evening Post, sucking a lemon drop she's removed from her purse. I sidle up to her on the sofa, my butt sticking to the plastic casing we keep on the cushions for protection. Is it too much to ask of her now, to cut out clothes for my Lennon Sisters? Before I speak up, she sighs, "Oh, Lordy."
I decide to leave her alone and retire to my room. Good night, Grand Duchess, I want to say. "'Night, Mrs. Fisher." I kiss her on the cheek and get a noseful of Evening in Paris.
"'Night, Lorna," she answers melodically. For a fleeting moment, we stare into each other's eyes and she winks; it's as if we've been through a war together.
In my peppermint pink room, I tear off my clothes and throw on baby-doll pajamas decorated with pictures of petite hamburgers and hot dogs. I turn down my covers and turn off the light. Norwood, my best and only friend, my extra
fuzzy gray kitty, has been waiting for me -- an especially happy lump on the bed. We snuggle in the dark; he's purring, I'm just trying to calm down. But some kind of lunatic laughter interrupts us. Through the common bedroom wall, I can hear Lonnie cackling.
I shudder in the dark on this hot, windy night. Then my thoughts turn to myself, to my odd, unlucky life. Could a person be disqualified from the Miss Universe Pageant for harboring a crazy sister? No, I reassure myself, realizing that, for me, the pageant's many years away. Even though I'm snug under a single cotton sheet, more doubts bubble up: Will I be prettier when the time comes? Will I be more deserving?
I pull my stiff floral bedspread over my head and decide to work on my acceptance speech. To beef it up where I can, here and now.
Copyright © 1998 by Laurie Fox
A Novel of My Life
My Sister from the Black Lagoon
A Novel of My Life
So begins My Sister from the Black Lagoon, Laurie Fox's incandescent novel of growing up absurd. Lorna Person's tale is wrested from the shadows cast by her sister, Lonnie, whose rages command the full attention of her parents. Their San Fernando Valley household is off-key and out of kilter, a place where Lonnie sees evil in the morning toast and runs into the Burbank hills to join the animals that seem more like her kin. Lorna, on the other hand, is an acutely sensitive girl who can't relate to Barbie. "Could Barbie feel sorrow? Could Barbie understand what it's like to be plump, lonely, Jewish?"
My Sister from the Black Lagoon is a wisecracked bell jar, a heartbreaking study of sane and crazy. Laurie Fox's delightful voice is knowing yet wide-eyed, lyrical, and witty.